12/10/2010 10:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Marry Your Soul Mate? Researchers Say Not So Fast

Don't marry your soul mate.

That's the word from "The State of Our Unions", a new study released by the National Marriage Project assessing the health of marriage in the country.

In recent years, sociologists have found that a "soul mate" model of marriage--that is, marriage for personal instead of practical reasons--has become the standard. That's in part because of changing gender roles, says Ann Crittenden, Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of The Price of Motherhood: "It is far more likely that women will have jobs and be able to support themselves now than it was in the 1970s. The traditional marriage where the man supports the woman is not needed. There's less social coercion in society and less coercion on women in every way."

Statistics in "The State of Our Unions" study also bear this out: marriage is no longer seen as a prerequisite for having a child. Indeed, the percentage of children born to unmarried mothers has risen from 13 percent to 44 percent in people whom the study defines as "middle educated" (possessing a high school but not a college diploma), and from 33 percent to 55 percent in the least educated (possessing no high school diploma). In the highest educated--those with a college diploma--it has gone from 2 percent to 6 percent.

Neither is marriage is a requirement for cohabitation. The percentage of women from ages 25 to 44 who have cohabited before marrying has risen from 51% to 75% in the least educated, 39% to 68% in the middle educated and from 35% to 50% in the most educated.

But W. Brad Wilcox, the editor of "The State of Our Unions", believes that the seemingly benign, though romantically appealing, model may be harmful to maintaining stable marriages, especially for middle Americans: "The soul mate model is easier when economics are all taken care of," he said. But the institutional model is "more likely to sustain marriage" and "more accessible to middle Americans." Whereas higher educated people may have the luxury of entering into marriage for romantic reasons, they also go into marriages already possessing higher levels of income that allow them to avoid the instabilities that lower-income couples must face.

Kay S. Hymowitz, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, is not so certain it's possible to bring back the institutional model as it once was, or even necessarily desirable. "But maybe there is a way to make people take more seriously the decisions they're making early in adulthood," she said.

Despite the increase in cohabitation and premarital childbirth, she believes it should be a "major aspiration" for people to raise their child with both parents involved. Of the younger generation, she seems to believe that the "soul mate" model of marriage hasn't banished more traditional concerns about providing a stable environment for child rearing. "Many would be loathe to say they're marrying to have kids," she said. "But they also know it'll be better for their kids [if they marry]."

At a recent conversation in New York discussing the report, Wilcox took issue with a recent article on Slate's Double X blog accusing the National Marriage Project of imposing a "patrician solution" that seeks to advance a marriage agenda. "It's not an exclusive or a patrician thing to them them achieve their dreams," he said. "That's a human thing."

He has a point. Marriage as a concept is deeply ingrained in the culture. "Marriage," said Stacy J. Rogers, a professor of sociology at Penn State, and a co-author of the book Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing, "...has the highest symbolic value in our culture that it's ever had. It's the symbol of a successful personal life." According to the "State of Our Unions", over 75% of Americans aged 25-60 in the the lower, middle and higher educated sectors still say that marriage is still "very important" or "one of the most important" things to them.